Mayor Bowser closes D.C. public schools indefinitely

This evening on a conference call with city educators, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that public schools will not reopen as planned on April 27th. The Mayor justified her announcement by explaining that in an effort to protect the safety of its citizens a decision to allow students to go back to class cannot come until the number of coronavirus cases in the District of Columbia begin to go down. Ms. Bowser has predicted that the peak in infections here will not be reached until the middle of the summer.

As of Today there were 1,097 confirmed people infected with the COVID-19 with 24 deaths.

The conversation included Deputy Mayor of Education Paul Kihn, State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, DC Public Charter School Board Executive Director Scott Pearson, and Director of the District of Columbia Department of Health Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt.

Ms. Bowser began by thanking all of the educators who have rapidly implemented plans to teach their students through distance learning. She also complimented schools for providing free meals to their children. Finally, the Mayor took note of the private DC Education Equity Fund that is raising money to provide students with computers and internet access.

After concluding her remarks, the Mayor accepted questions from participants. The first inquiry came from Susan Schaeffler, the founder and chief executive officer of KIPP DC PCS. She wondered whether the Mayor couldn’t offer an anchor date of two weeks or more from now for setting some expectations around when school might once again be accepting pupils onsite. Ms. Bowser said that this was not possible at this time. But she did point out that if an anchor date is needed she stated that she has gone to the D.C. Council to ask for an extension of the District’s public health emergency for another 45 days. She added that if conditions improved during this period it is possible a different option could be taken regarding the schools.

In response to another person on the line asking about the impact of the coronavirus on the school budget for the rest of this year and next, Mayor Bowser responded that she did not know. She did mention that the downturn in the economy has decreased revenue to the city by over $600 million.

On Friday, March 13th, Ms. Bowser shuttered DCPS beginning the following Monday, stating that they would reopen on April 1st. She said that she expected charters to follow suit, which they have done. Then on March 20th she delayed the start to April 27th. Today’s remarks now decrease the probability that the schools will reopen this term.

Mayor Bowser should provide D.C. charters with funds to cover crisis costs

Today, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein writes that some charter schools are considering applying for funds under the recently approved federal CARES Act. From her article:

“The $2 trillion federal relief package finalized last week, officially known as the CARES Act, includes nearly $350 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, a small-business loan program. The program incentivizes small businesses with fewer than 500 employees to keep their workers by covering about two months of paychecks for employees who make less than $100,000 annually. The businesses can have their loans forgiven if they avoid layoffs or pay cuts.”

I sit on the board of a nonprofit that intends to apply for PPP dollars because the money that normally supports this organization is not expected to come in. The result is that employees will almost certainly have to be furloughed. This appears to me to be the perfect use of the program. I imagine that businesses that have had to shutdown like restaurants and small stores whose employees are currently out of work would benefit from this aid.

However, charter schools are not in similar situations. They receive their money from the city government and that revenue stream is not expected to be interrupted.

This is not to say that charters are not currently experiencing a financial bind. Most are proving free breakfast and lunch to their students. In addition, schools have provided computers to pupils and internet access so that they can participate in distance learning.

According to Ms. Perry, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools and Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, have encouraged charters to submit a PPP application.

The Post reporter includes this comment by Mr. Pearson on the issue:

“There is a lot of uncertainty about the city budget. . . Absent of something like this program, we should expect layoffs from public charter schools, and the whole point of this program is to prevent these layoffs.”

I’m not so sure about the uncertainty. The District of Columbia had an estimated $500 million surplus at the end of its 2019 fiscal year. I think in a time of crisis Mayor Bowser and the D.C. Council should figure out how to come to the aid of these schools.

As we know, support for our public schools, both charters and DCPS, by law must come through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula. However, I do not foresee a problem with establishing a special emergency grant plan that all schools could access. Already, a coalition of nonprofits and individuals have established the DC Education Equity Fund to assist schools with technology needs in the face of the coronavirus. The city could certainly augment this effort.

Desperate times require our representatives to provide strong leadership. By utilizing the city’s significant budget surplus to assist schools during this period we could let the federal government provide aid to those who no longer are receiving a paycheck.

Why don’t we treat school reform as a public health crisis?

Say what you will about the press conferences of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, it is evident that there are heroic efforts by many people to provide supplies, testing, and medications in order to save American lives around this pandemic. In addition, observing the response of healthcare workers at all levels to caring for patients is enough to bring tears to your eyes. These individuals who risk their own health on a daily basis will never make the history books or win a Presidential Medal of Freedom, but they should. These are professionals in the true sense of the word. There is a job to do and so they are doing it.

Even in these extremely difficult times the world goes on and so here in the nation’s capital last Friday parents received their children’s public school lottery results. I enjoyed reading Perry Stein’s Washington Post article following examples of lottery decisions for families in each of the city’s eight wards. What I did not like were the results. Only 38 percent of those entering the lottery received their first choice. Many participants do not even try to gain admittance to the top charter schools in the city because they already know that the wait list is in the thousands of students with no or very few empty spaces available. I’m sure any day the data for those whose names have been placed on this list will be released, and it is certain that is has grown from the depressingly large 12,000 we saw for this school year.

What I’m trying to understand is why we do not put the effort into solving the problem of a lack of quality seats as we do when we have a severe healthcare problem? Where is the teamwork and drive that is exhibited when the future of our society is at stake? I know perfectly well that we are not talking about life and death when it comes to the school a child attends. But in a serious manner the stakes are just as high.

This is the perfect opportunity to figure out how to increase the capacity of our strongest academic performing schools. There are many smart men and women out there with a lot of time on their hands. Zoom has proved to be an especially effective technology for communicating when we cannot be in the same room. Here’s the challenge: By the end of April a list is generated of ten concrete steps that can be taken to make sure that our town is providing the best education to each child that needs one. Who wants to take the lead?

We have solved serious problems regarding public education before and we can certainly do it now. We should use our response to the coronavirus as a motivating force.

When it became apparent that distance learning was the method for teaching in the near future, over a million dollars was raised in a matter of days to make sure pupils could access the internet. After it was discovered that Monument Academy PCS was falling apart, Washington D.C. nonprofits came to the rescue with promises of grants and managerial support. In the face of students being forced to find other places to learn when the D.C. charter board was about to close facilities, institutions such as Friendship PCS and KIPP DC PCS incorporated these sites into their networks.

Now you should not leave the house. Now what are you going to do?

D.C. School Reform Act must be reformed

Note: As a public service, I plan to continue to write about school reform in the nation’s capital to give people a few minutes of reprieve from all of the depressing coronavirus news coverage.

Even though Monday evening’s monthly board meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board was not held in person with proceedings broadcast on the internet, you could clearly read the disappointment on the faces of the group’s members regarding the discussion around Achievement Prep PCS.

In February, Friendship PCS had been granted a charter amendment to takeover Achievement Prep’s Wahler Place Middle School after the school founded by Shantelle Wright admitted that it was not serving the educational needs of its fourth through eighth grade students. The plan was for Friendship to teach the current students at the Wahler campus the next school year and then transfer these pupils to an enlarged Southeast Academy Middle School 1.2 miles away which is currently under construction.

The discussion the other evening was around giving approval to Achievement Prep to reconfigure its grades, which would eventually include restarting its middle school program. But as reported here, on March 2nd the charter received a letter from Deputy Mayor of Education Paul Kihn explaining that the plan was actually illegal because the new Friendship campus was not open to others in a fair and equal manner consistent with the My DC Lottery process. Achievement Prep did not want to be accused of doing anything to appear blocking access to its schools for low-income minority students and so the deal with Friendship was called off.

The whole affair left my mind reeling. Weren’t these two schools simply following the same arrangements that had led, for example, Friendship to takeover IDEAL Academy PCS and KIPP DC PCS to run Somerset PCS? Well it turns out that I was incorrect.

People in the movement more knowledgeable than I pointed out that the instances I illustrated above involved the transfer of assets. In other words, one charter was closing and another was assuming its operation. This was not the case with Achievement Prep. In this instance, Achievement Prep was continuing to run its school. It was simply attempting to move one campus under Friendship’s control.

Apparently, the D.C. School Reform Act permits one school to replace another when a charter is closing but there is no written power for the same procedure to be followed when it comes to a campus. This is wrong.

Now approximately 355 children need to find a school for next term after the lottery has closed. The fact that the Deputy Mayor sent his letter to Achievement Prep on the last day that families could enter their preferences in the lottery is just sad.

There is a simple solution to all of this turmoil. The School Reform Act needs to be amended to allow for the arrangements such as the one that Achievement Prep and Friendship had reached. If our focus is truly on the children and meeting their educational needs with the least amount of disruption for families, then we know the right thing to do.

DC Education Equity Fund raises $1.1 million to support distance learning

Yesterday was the first day for distance learning for D.C.’s traditional schools. It also marked an announcement by Mayor Muriel Bowser that Education Forward DC, in collaboration with the DC Public Education Fund, has created at the Greater Washington Community Foundation the DC Education Equity Fund. The goals of the fund are:

  • Ensuring students’ basic needs are being met so they are ready to learn
  • Providing students with internet and device access
  • Support for students to have a successful transition when school buildings reopen with additional learning resources

The Education Equity Fund’s website states that “Education Forward DC will pay for all donation processing costs so that 100% of funds raised will go to organizations directly serving DC students and families.”

Ms. Bowser revealed that $1.1 million dollars have already been raised in this effort. The money will support all public school students including those enrolled in charters and DCPS. The public can contribute to the fund here. Below are some examples of what the donations can do:

  • $50 buys a wifi hotspot for a family without internet connectivity
  • $250 buys a device—a Chromebook, for example—for a student in need
  • $5,000 buys a classroom set of devices for students

Contributors include:

  • A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation
  • CityBridge Education
  • CityBridge Foundation
  • The City Fund
  • Terry and Lindsay Eakin
  • Education Forward DC
  • The Lois and Richard England Family Foundation
  • The Andrew and Julie Klingenstein Family Fund
  • Joseph E. Robert Jr. Charitable Trust, G. David Fensterheim, Trustee

All are heroes. As the Mayor remarked on Tuesday:

“We are grateful for everyone in our community who is stepping up during these unprecedented times – students, families, and community partners. We will be learning together, and we will get through this together.”

Yes we will. Again, from the new organization’s website:

“The District and the nation are facing unprecedented challenges due to the current public health emergency. Public schools in the District of Columbia have transitioned to a modified operating status to support the District’s efforts to mitigate the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Beginning Tuesday, March 24, schools launched distance learning; during this time, students will learn from a combination of online lessons, printed materials, and virtual check-ins with teachers.

While distance learning is new for most families, for many in our community it also means immediate challenges to ensure digital equity. Today, there is an urgent need to ensure that all DC students – especially those furthest from opportunity – are provided the resources and support they need to continue their education.”

D.C. charter board holds spectacular virtual monthly public meeting

The DC Public Charter School Board, in the face of preventing the spread of COVID-19, delayed its March monthly meeting by a week so that it could coordinate holding its next session using the application Zoom with participants connecting by computer over the internet from different physical locations. The result was nothing less than perfection in the midst of a devastating public health crisis. Executive director Scott Pearson started off the agenda by explaining the PCSB’s six goals during this highly unusual period. They are:

  • Supporting our schools in any way we can by sharing individual campus experiences,
  • Recognizing that the accountability structure will change due to students not taking standardized tests this year with direct consequences on the calculation of the Performance Management Framework,
  • Collaborating as good partners across city agencies and organizations,
  • Effectively overseeing distance learning,
  • Enabling the board to do its work successfully, and
  • Openly communicating to schools and families.

Chairman Rick Cruz then ran a highly structured public comment period in which approximately a dozen people testified. I liked it a lot. Because people had to sign up ahead of time, I could learn the names of each individual speaking. The sound was clearer than in any previous gathering. You could easily see who was speaking. Perhaps we have all learned something from this exercise.

The evening also provided a shocking development in the form of an amendment request from Achievement Prep PCS. We were all prepared to hear the school argue that it should be allowed to pursue its plan of turning its middle school over to Friendship PCS and then reconstitute grades four through eight in coming years. However on March 2nd, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn sent a letter to the charter explaining that by transitioning its students to Friendship and excluding other pupils from a chance to enroll, it was violating the law by not allowing fair and equal access to a lottery. He claimed that over a thousand children would like to gain admission to a Friendship middle school and therefore the process being followed here was illegal.

The letter, according to chair Jason Andrean and founder and CEO Shantelle Wright, had a stunning impact on the Achievement Prep board. Priding itself on providing opportunities for under-served low-income minority students, it did not want to have anything to do with the accusations made by Mr. Kihn. The school called off the deal with Friendship, sending about 355 students scrambling to find a seat for next year. Participation in the My DC School common lottery closed on the day the Deputy Mayor sent his letter to Achievement Prep.

The charter board appeared extremely frustrated by this turn of events. After all, isn’t this how it has conducted takeovers of academically poor performing charters for years? A school closes and its enrollment is incorporated by the new operator. The difference in this instance appears to be that Friendship was not taking over the charter of Achievement Prep together with its assets, only one of its campuses.

The members of the PCSB were not happy and wondered why Mr. Kihn had not brought up this issue earlier. The question of charter school autonomy was raised. Taking advantage of the chat feature of the software platform we were on, some in the audience asserted that Achievement Prep should have stuck with its original plan.

The whole thing reminded me of the meeting last January when Mayor Muriel Bowser showed up to assert her control over the charter sector.

The charter amendment will be voted on next month.

Next, Paul PCS was up for its 20-year review. Here again the proceedings did not go as anticipated. The school has a Tier 1 ranked high school but its middle school campus has not been able to reach its goal of 50 percent on the PMF during the five year review period. The board was ready to pull the trigger on its usual draconian conditions that the school would have to meet or face closure of this campus. However, things are not as they used to be and the school pointed out, with the assistance of attorney Stephen Marcus, that in the absence of PARCC testing and therefore most likely an omitted PMF ranking for this year, the academic scoring requirements placed on the school that would be effective beginning now are moot.

The charter board did admit that it will be drafting a policy in April dealing with school accountability in the absence of standardized testing as Mr. Pearson alluded to earlier. The decision was then made to delay a decision regarding Paul until this new path forward is developed.

It was an extremely busy few hours for Mr. Marcus as his firm also represented Achievement Prep.

Almost as an afterthought after some captivating discussions, it was time to learn the charter applications that would be approved for opening in the 2021-to-2022 school term. Only one of the four bids, that of Global Citizens PCS, was given the green light. You know that the world has truly changed when only fifty percent of the schools backed by CityBridge Education are given the go-ahead.

Let’s sincerely hope that everything gets back to normal soon.

Scott Pearson should delay leaving D.C. charter board

Last November, Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC PCSB, announced that he was relinquishing his position after eight and a half years at the end of May. In the face of the crises facing the public and charter schools in particular around the coronavirus pandemic I think it only prudent that Mr. Pearson should delay this move until the end of the summer.

Charter schools are now basically following the lead of DCPS and closing until April 1st. Chances are good that this date will be delayed. Students are being provided with the opportunity to take classes remotely and food is distributed to those who would go hungry if not for nourishment delivered where they normally would go to class.

The DCPCSB announced that its monthly board meeting that was scheduled for last night will move to Monday, March 23rd. The session will be held virtually. The charter board offices are closed with employees working from home.

Board chair Rick Cruz and Vice-Chair Saba Bireda have been leading a national search for Mr. Peterson’s replacement. We do not know the impact travel and meeting restrictions around personal safety have had on this recruitment effort.

With all that is going on and no immediate idea when life will get back to some form of normalcy, this would not be the right time to make such an important transition. I’m sure after all the dedicated service Mr. Pearson has provided to our 62 schools operating on 123 campuses that enroll 49,000 scholars, he can hang in there a few more months. This is also a crucial moment to have a thorough transition to a new leader.

Dramatic events call for dramatic actions. Mr. Pearson should continue to head the DC PCSB until the nation’s capitol begins to calm down. Perhaps this request should come directly from Mayor Bowser?

D.C. Mayor could have closed charter schools; that she didn’t should be applauded

In the wake of this terrible world-wide tragedy regarding the coronavirus, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on March 7th declared a state of emergency and public health emergency in the nation’s capital. According to WAMU’s Jacob Fenston:

“Declaring a state of emergency activates a broad range of powers that enable the mayor to mobilize people and resources more quickly to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. That includes things like mandatory quarantines or curfews, freeing up funds more quickly and preventing price gouging on essentials needed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.”

Yesterday, she issued new restrictions on the number of people who can be present in bars and restaurants.

In addition, last week it was announced that D.C. public schools would be closed beginning today, Monday, March 16th, and would re-open on Wednesday, April 1st. March 16 is a professional development day for teachers so that remote learning lesson plans can be implemented. The spring break that was originally scheduled for the middle of April is cancelled and instead will take place this week. Beginning Monday, March 23rd students will take classes online.

So that pupils do not miss meals associated with attending school, DCPS has established food distribution sites at 16 campuses. Many students in our city would go hungry were it not for the nourishment they receive while at their classrooms.

The Mayor and the Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn should be congratulated and thanked for the perfectly appropriate response regarding our schools in the face of this crisis.

Most, but not all, public charter schools are following the schedule established for DCPS.

The School Reform Act of 1995 created charter schools in the District, making them autonomous from DCPS. In 2007, Adrian Fenty won control of the regular schools through the Public Education Reform Act. Although the SRA provided charters with clear freedom from the rules governing the regular schools, there is broad agreement that the chief executive and D.C. Council still have authority over the alternative sector when it comes to the health and safety of students.

This is why Ms. Bowser’s announcement regarding DCPS is so important. It demonstrates a restraint that honors the independence of charters as individual local education agencies combined with a deep respect that they will take appropriate actions to protect the lives of those that they educate, as they have done for over 25 years.

We should be proud of our elected representative’s efforts to protect its citizens. Today, we must also celebrate our clearly established system of school choice in the greatest city in the world.

Concern over D.C. charter school at-risk children lottery admissions preference

I read with extreme interest the editorial in the Washington Post by Peter Anderson, the head of Washington Latin PCS. It drew my attention because I was the board treasurer and chair during a six year period in this high performing school’s history when its continued viability was strengthened. Moreover, I have been to education conferences for years in which the illustration that Mr. Anderson describes has been shown on projection screens big and small. But despite universal audience opinion that equity is a value that everyone who is involved in teaching children should try and reach above all others, the line of reasoning has left me uncertain.

We have seen multiple articles celebrating the success of public school reform in the nation’s capital. This improvement is due to the competition that charter schools offered to the traditional school system beginning a quarter of a century ago. Since money followed the child there was strong incentive for schools to improve. For the first time parents became the customers in an education bureaucracy that rewarded adherence to the chain of command. Before public school reform reached the District we left our kids’ classrooms without books, instructors without incentives to instruct, and buildings characterized by falling plaster, gang activity, and the presence of drugs and guns.

Families are returning to D.C. schools and enrollment is at its highest level since right before Mayor Fenty was elected in 2007 on an education agenda. A major contribution to this growth has been the equal chance of parents to have their children admitted to one of the city’s charter schools.

Charter schools were established to provide an alternative to the one-size-fits-all model of the regular schools. Their concentration has been rightly on those that have not been successful in traditional classrooms, especially those who come from low-income homes. This is why so many charters have located in Wards 6, 7, and 8.

My worry is that the ability of a charter to voluntarily provide admissions preference to at-risk students will elevate equity over equality. It may send an unintentional signal that this sector is not for every child with the impact being a dissatisfaction by a significant portion of our community.

I remember when Senator Patrick Moynihan was alive and he argued famously that life was a race in which black families were often left behind at the starting line. It was a view of society that led to welfare policies that ending up hurting the very people he wanted to help. Senator Moynihan’s analogy is not much different from the drawing Mr. Anderson references.

I contend that equality is a superior value to equity and that this should be reflected in the same admission probability for all those who want to attend our schools. This does not mean that we should not provide additional support to those pupils who need them.

Washington Latin PCS has about a 2,000 student wait list and has been approved by the DC Public Charter School Board to replicate. If it really wants to focus on improving the lives of at-risk children, it should locate its next campus near where they live.